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  You are in: Home > Middle East Studies > In the Name of Oil  

In the Name of Oil
Anglo-American Relations in the Middle East, 1950–1958

Ivan L. G. Pearson

Ivan L. G. Pearson is a postdoctoral researcher at the European Commission’s Energy Security Unit in the Netherlands. He received his master’s and doctorate in International Relations from the University of Oxford, and holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Edinburgh.


Traditional historiographies of the Cold War in the Middle East contend that the Suez Crisis marked the demise of Britain’s political influence in the region. By contrast, using recently declassified documents, Ivan Pearson argues that although the Suez Crisis was cataclysmic on many dimensions, it did not mark a precipitous turning point in Britain’s ability to affect events in the Middle East decisively. Although Suez wholly undermined British prestige, and revealed severe shortcomings in its military capabilities, these losses were considerably offset by the increasing ability of British policymakers to influence the United States – a country with an emerging presence in the region. In several critical instances during the 1950s – both before and after the Crisis – British policymakers were successful in shaping events in the Middle East through a concerted lobbying effort that swayed the course of policy action pursued by the US.

In the Name of Oil documents the frequent bureaucratic infighting between the Administration, State Department, and CIA on the American side, as well as the way in which the British took advantage of the blurred line between communism and Arab nationalism in the Middle East to mislead the US into pursuing policies that would protect the cheap oil supplied by British-owned oil giants such as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and the Iraq Petroleum Company. The narrative explains the crucial role of local actors, and the tangled web of interests and circumstances: Western-backed coups, counter-coups, political intimidation, rigged elections, misinformation, and bribery. Barely a decade after the end of World War II, the war’s liberal democratic victors were engaged in dubious acts in the name of protecting Europe’s access to cheap Middle Eastern Oil.

Foreword by Avi Shlaim
Preface and Acknowledgements
List of Abbreviations

Patrons and Clients in the Middle East
The Anglo-American ‘Special Relationship’
A Special Time and Place
Plan of the Book
Sources, Transliteration, and Terminology

1 Mohammad Mosaddeq, Oil, and Nationalism in Iran
Postwar Tension and Cold War Necessity
Truman’s Predicament
The Problem of Communism
“We must cajole and counsel her with infinite patience
and forbearance”
The Fresh Situation
Tipping Point
A Very British Plan
Appraising the British Contribution

2 The Most Useful of the Western Powers
The Persian Gulf
Occupation and Stalemate
An Independent Posture
“The last, and greatest, of our overseas assets”

3 Suez
British Neglect
American Antagonism
Grave American Concerns
Unscripted Excesses
In the Wake of the Intervention
New Blood
The Corridors of Power

4 A Chestnut from the Fire
Jordan in the Anglo-American Rubric
An Expensive Luxury
Ali Abu Nuwar
The Suez Cataclysm
“This is not a question of pulling a British chestnut out
of the fire”
The Prime Ministry and the Palace
The Domestic Opposition

5 The Syrian Crisis of 1957
Ripe to be Plucked
Imperial Defence after the Suez Base
Prelude to the Summer Crisis
“Illegalities and crimes behind the scenes”
A Suez in Reverse?
The British Become Involved
Regional Response

6 Wrong Together

Saving Chamoun
The Assassination of Matni
The Resurrection of Military Planning
Change of Heart
Better “to do wrong together than to do the right things alone”
Overcoming American Apprehension
The Balance Sheet



“A valuable contribution to the existing literature on Anglo-American relations in general and on the International Relations of the Middle East in the 1950s in particular. The ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the United States has been a persistent theme in public discourse since the Second World War but it is rarely treated with analytical rigour. It is refreshing therefore to come across a critical and unsentimental account of how this relationship works out in practice.” Avi Shlaim, St. Antony’s, Oxford

“Historical studies of this subject usually accentuate the gradual US usurpation of British influence in the Middle East, but Pearson (postdoctoral researcher, European Commission’s Energy Security Unit Netherlands) has formulated an interesting new approach. He maintains that Britain’s role in the region was not significantly reduced as London successfully used Washington’s fear of communism and attachment to a “special relationship” as levers to pressure US policy in a direction favourable to Britain. Pearson proceeds to examine major events in the Middle East from this perspective and, to a considerable extent, buttresses his thesis through case studies of Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. However, his coverage of Egypt, Jordan, and the Buraimi Oasis dispute of 1952–55 indicates considerable Anglo-American friction and thereby does not substantiate his argument. He does not look into the possibility that London and Washington had parallel interests, pays little attention to the Soviet role in this equation, and relies on British and American documents while neglecting Middle Eastern sources. Although accurate and detailed, the chapters function as distinct entities. Nevertheless, this is a bold, serious attempt to re-evaluate this historiography, and it would be of great benefit to graduate students and foreign policy practitioners. Recommended. Graduate, research, and professional collections.” Choice

“Historiographies of the Cold War in the Middle East have understated Britain’s involvement in the region following the Suez Crisis because they have largely overlooked the significant ability of British policymakers to influence US perceptions of threat and interest” (p. 1). Thus, Ivan Pearson, a PhD from Oxford University, opens his account of Anglo influence in the Middle East in the 1950s. This work has received accolades from the British-based Israeli “new historian” Avi Shlaim, who has written extensively on the diplomatic history of the region.
The author’s essential argument is that the Suez Crisis of 1956 did not mark the end of British influence in the Middle East and that, in fact, the British continued to influence U.S. policymaking. “By demonstrating that the British were able to critically impact the turn of events in the Middle East by influencing the policies of the United States in several critical instances in the years following the Suez Crisis, this book establishes a doctrinarian adherence to neither of the above supposed maxims [and] aids our understanding of events” (p. 9). The account of the clash at Suez, which has been told in several full-length books devoted to the subject, most recently Suez: Britain’s End of Empire in the Middle East (2011) and Eisenhower 1956 (2011), is a pertinent topic, especially in light of current events in Egypt. The conventional view, that it resulted in a new American semihegemony in the Middle East, is perceived wisdom today. This wisdom is worth challenging and In the Name of Oil is a good start.

The author concludes, “a coordinated effort by British politicians and officials to foster closer cooperation with their American counterparts gave the British a say in the formulation of American Middle Eastern policy in 1958” (p. 170). This is an important study based on a wealth of primary, mostly diplomatic, sources. There is one problem that has to do mostly with the title. Little to none of what is discussed in the book had to do with oil, except for the Iran crisis of 1953. That oil is the prism through which Middle Eastern policy was examined in the 1990s is a fact, but the prism of the 1950s focused much more on the threat or perceived threat of Communism. Outside of this minor flaw, this is an exceedingly important scholarly account and a contribution to our understanding of the period." Digest of Middle East Studies

Publication Details

Hardback ISBN:
Paperback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
240 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
Hardback April 2010p paperback September 2012
  Illustrated:   No
Hardback Price:
£55.00 / $74.95
Paperback Price:
£22.50 / $34.95

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